Poetry often seems obscure, so dense with meaning that reading it feels like a being in a dark fog. So it is not surprising that many students feel a sense of relief when high school poetry classes end and real life begins.
I am a teacher and, for me, poetry is real life. Nevertheless, in my eighth-grade Humanities classes, we don’t spend a lot of time analyzing poems. We talk about them, decipher difficult words, and notice some literary techniques. Mostly, we read them aloud. Over and over. Until finally, in groups, students stand and recite by heart.
The first poem of the year is usually ‘Walkers with the Dawn’ by Langston Hughes:
Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
Walkers with the sun and morning,
We are not afraid of night,
Nor days of gloom,
Nor darkness —
Being walkers with the sun and morning.
Later, we learn ‘My Heart Soars’ by Chief Dan George:
The beauty of the trees,
the softness of the air,
the fragrance of the grass,
speaks to me.
The summit of the mountain,
the thunder of the sky,
the rhythm of the sea,
speaks to me.
The faintness of the stars,
the freshness of the morning,
the dew drop on the flower,
speaks to me.
The strength of fire,
the taste of salmon,
the trail of the sun,
And the life that never goes away,
They speak to me.
And my heart soars.
Tears of happiness often fill my eyes when I hear students reciting poems. I am filled with awe, listening to them learn great works of literature that have held people together from one generation to another. Sometimes, while waiting to be dismissed, students recite just for the fun of watching me cry. One year, a few students – while waiting in attendance rows for gym class to begin – spontaneously started reciting ‘No Man is an Island’ by John Donne. Soon, almost 60 of them were loudly reciting in unison. When they were finished, they smiled at me and started again:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Poetry has helped me through hard times in life and I’ve trusted that it would help my students, as well. This week, after a thirteen-year-old girl was killed by an intruder in one of the local high schools, I got an e-mail from a former student:
“As you have heard Abbotsford Senior has experienced tragedy on Tuesday. What you may not know is that I had the unfortunate privilege of administering first aid on the second victim, which saved her life. I email you because I wish to thank you for a poem you made me memorize in the eighth grade, 4 years ago. Not only has it stuck with me as my favourite piece of poetry…, but it has really helped me accept what happened. The poem is by John Donne and it is called “No Man is an Island”…. Thanks again for this poem, and I would like to assure you that I am doing okay,…. Just so you are aware, I give you permission to use this as an example for the importance of poetry.”
I was humbled by this young man who found strength and peace from remembering a poem written almost 400 years ago. This time, my tears were the bittersweet ones that come from seeing children turn into adults. They were the quiet tears that come from seeing people cope with the pain of life through the power of poetry.
We don’t have to always analyze poems. Just learn them. Keep them safely in our hearts. They will help carry us through life.